Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

San Elijo Hills

Dateline: 1:22 pm July 19, 2010 Filed under:

If you have never been to the Town Center at San Elijo Hills, I encourage you to visit at once. Located about 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, it is the finest marriage of land use and transportation planning in a suburban setting that I am aware of in the United States. It should serve as an example for anyone seeking a holistic solution to achieve attractive, functional mixed-use suburban development.

You can view pictures of San Elijo Hills here.

I was very impressed upon my first visit five years ago, and I recently returned to San Elijo Hills to check in and see how things were going. In that time, an Albertson’s grocery store had opened in the Town Center. This is a hugely important piece of the evolution of the larger San Elijo Hills, as it provided the Town Center with a critical everyday retail amenity for the master planned community. Most importantly, it works.

What makes San Elijo Hills special is its use of the “paired couplet” to move cars through the town center. The developer, HomeFed Corporation, knew there would be a commercial center and higher-density housing and parks, trails and open space as part of their 1,900-acre master planned community, and they wanted it located in a pedestrian-friendly town center. But in traveling the country in search of town centers, Curt Noland and the HomeFed team were discouraged to find most good examples were isolated at one quadrant of major arterial intersections, and therefore inaccessible on foot from the other three quadrants.

HomeFed hired Peter Calthorpe, who proposed paired couplets as part of his Urban Network. The Urban Network is based on the idea that we cannot change our land use development pattern without fundamentally changing our transportation system. San Elijo Hills proves that the Urban Network can indeed work.

Rather than having two wide arterials with a 45 or 50 MPH speed limit meet at an eight phase traffic signal (which is typically how things are done), the arterials are “split” in to two sets of one-way streets and slowed to 30 MPH. The “paired couplet” refers to the grid of one-way streets with a block in between that can be developed or used for open space.

The paired couplet achives two things. It slows traffic and makes the entire town center accessible on foot, bike or by car. It breaks up the “tyranny” of arterial streets, as Calthorpe puts it, by each one-way street being just two lanes wide at each intersection, rather than up to 110 feet in conventional suburban settings. Futhermore, street speeds of 30 MPH are much saner, and parallel parking lining both sides encourages drivers to slow down more and provide a buffer between moving cars and pedestrians. The grid created by the one-ways and careful attention to the public realm provide the setting for a mix of commercial, housing and civic uses to be accomodated in a very attractive setting. Also, hiking and biking trails are well-connected from throughout San Elijo Hills in to the town center.

The problem is the transportation and land use working together is the exception rather than the rule. HomeFed had to put significant resources in to the effort of doing both land use and transportation right. So kudos to the city of San Marcos for having the foresight to work with HomeFed. The city’s public works department agreed to a traffic study, which found that, when considering shorter waits at traffic signals, traffic actually moved more quickly through the town center despite a slower speed limit.

But we must ask the question how fast do we actually want to move through our town centers when they are attractive and have many reasons to stop? Do we want to merely pass through our cities, or truly live in them? Until good solutions like the Urban Network are encouraged and commonplace and actually embraced by the DOT and public works world, developments like San Elijo Hills will be the exception rather than the rule.

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